Monday, September 27, 2010

Summer Dump

I've been so swamped with new music hungover from the summer that I've neglected to mention all the new music I fell in love with between finals and football season. Here are a few standouts that came out and frequented my car's CD player this past summer.

Band of Horses - Infinite Arms

Ben Bridwell and his revamped Band of Horses has finally broken out of the hobo-pop niche they carved with their first two albums. The newly refined band brings musical intricacies and literate subtleties to the rosey-cheeked bashfulness and everyman lyrics that became Bridwell's signature on Everything All the Time. "Factory" lightly taps the album to get it rolling with an ethereal string arrangement that somehow defines the song over Bridwell's nectarous vocals. "Blue Beard" starts with a gigantic multi-part choir and ends with the bass sliding along to a sugary, swooping "Afternoon Delight"-esque vocal melody. But just as the album starts to teeter the line between sweet and saccharine, "Northwest Apartment" juggernauts its way through the gumdrops and marshmallows with steamrolling guitars and relentless drums, kicking the energy up a notch just before the albums culminates with the colossal "Bartles + James". Before Infinite Arms came out, Bridwell claimed that it was "in many ways...the first Band of Horses record." Turns out, that was a fair assessment...much more fair than it would be to compare it to Everything All the Time. My advice, for the listener's sake, would be not to even try. 

Colour Revolt - The Cradle

In a nutshell, Colour Revolt's last album, Plunder, Beg, and Curse, bombed commercially and they lost three out of five 
members, threatening the band's eight-year career and leaving remaining members, dual vocalists, guitarists, and songwriters Jesse Coppenbarger and Sean Kirkpatrick, to write a whole bunch of songs about a band breaking up. Fortunately, those songs were good enough to keep that band together and breathe new life into its 3/5-dead shell. Lead single "8 Years," which Coppenbarger wrote the day his band quit on him, relays that sentiment most vigorously and directly as he repeats "One man's limo is another man's hearse." The band tests the more pop-sensible waters they first dipped into with Plunder's "Moses of the South" on tracks like "She Don't Talk" and "Our Names". The music, lyrics, and vocal delivery are still as biting as ever, but the song structures and overall flow of these tracks and others are more listenable than much of Colour Revolt's back catalogue. The superb and distinctly Colour Revolt guitar work is most prominent on "Mona Lisa" as Coppenbarger and Kirkpatrick trade jarring chug for blood-curdling squeal right before they howl, "I know that I'm weak, tell me I'm strong / When I'm on a streak, tell me I'm wrong." The Cradle might have risen from the ashes of devastation, but it just might have been the focus Colour Revolt needed to save their career.

Good Old War - Good Old War

Good Old War's self-titled sophomore effort is not without its glaring faults; the instrumental intro, midtro, and outro serve more to clutter the 15-track album than to portion it, and the lyrics are somehow borderline contrived and cheesily simple at the same time. But perhaps I'm just nitpicking in the gigantic shadow cast by the band's virtually un
toppable debut, Only Way to Be Alone. For its miniscule flaws, Good Old War offers a slew of Only Way-caliber gems, like the harmony-heavy "Here Are the Problems" and the scorching "Get Some". "My Own Sinking Ship" showcases an unforgettable vocal melody that will lodge itself in a special place in your heart where the trio of vocalists, led by Keith Goodwin and rounded out by guitarist Dan Schwartz and drummer Tim Arnold, croon "Oh, it's the last time we'll fall in love / Yeah, it's the last try to break apart / You are not to blame". Although Schwartz's skillful guitar playing and Arnold's innovative percussion (demonstrated best on "Making My Life" and "While I'm Away", respectively) anchors the bands's uniquely familiar sound, Good Old War is at their best when they keep things simple. "That's Some Dream" strolls by in a cool, sublime two-and-a-half minutes as Goodwin, Schwartz, and Arnold sing, "I'm gonna live, I'm alright / I'm gonna die, it's alright / I'm okay, lie die die" in such undeniable unison that it seems as though the song came together spontaneously at the time it was played back. Underneath Good Old War is three technically advanced musicians with the skill to anchor any reasonable prog-rock band. But its their collective ability to restrain themselves and let their uncanny skill punctuate rather than dictate their cheery pop songs that makes them so unstoppable.

Kevin Devine - She Stayed as Steam

Kevin Devine struggled over the tracklist of his outstanding LP Brother's Blood, and it pained him to exclude "She Stayed As Steam" and "Big Bad Man". So he did what any reasonable, outwardly humble artist who appreciates his fans to an almost absurd degree would do: he put out an EP featuring the two b-sides for shits and gigs. The nearly six-minute title track is dynamic and sprawling and shows off Devine's unique and technially impressive guitar work that separates him from the majority of his songwriting peers. Devine thrusts the vocal melody to the forefront on "Big Bad Man" while his Goddamn Band taps and strums dreamily in the background. Devine sings "I shamed my father and I scared my family / I'm in a trainwreck mess" before birdlike "ooh-ooh"'s take over the bridge and invite the song to resolve itself. In addition to the two LP-worthy b-sides, the EP contains remixes of Brothers Blood tracks "Hand of God" and "Another Bag of Bones," by Plosive and Devastation of Death respectively, and two songs from an FM4 radio session Devine did in March. One of which is an artfully rendered cover of Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel No. 2". The other is an alternate version of Devine's hit from Make The Clocks Move, "Ballgame." The extra goodies are nice, but they are collectively more an excuse to release the b-sides on an EP with some really awesome artwork than actual record fodder. However, She Stayed As Steam is more than worth picking up just for the title track and "Big Bad Man," which fell victim only to the compact disc's physical limits.

MGMT -Congratulations

If you're reading our blog, you've probably heard Congratulations, so I'll spare you the intro. For whatever reason, I could never get into Oracular Spectacular. Maybe it was my intrinsic skepticism of synth-driven music, or maybe it was the legion of whitehat college douchebags I witnessed slowly fall victim to the hypnotizing, ravelike beats of the hits like "Time to Pretend" and "Kids".  Needless to say, I had no intention of paying any close attention to MGMT's follow-up to their hit debut. But my ears and eyebrows perked when I saw the album art; the hilariously facetious cartoon surfing cat is being devoured by himself as a giant wave. Some fans scoffed at the humor (how dare MGMT do something that's not sincerely artful like Oracular Spectacular?), while others hailed it as some kind of otherworldly, trippy call to some level of artistic appreciation that the layperson was too, well, lay, to understand. I, however, took it as two dudes trying to separate themselves from the massive spotlight they've somewhat unintentionally wandered into since they released their debut album with outright humor; in other words, MGMT didn't want to take themselves nearly as seriously as their fans take them. As it turned out, they reflected that sentiment throughout Congratulations and, as a result, made better music. Right away, "It's Working" demonstrates the band's newfound proclivity for unexpected turns in chord progressions, unnatural- (but charmingly interesting) sounding key changes, and a quirky, almost Buddy Holly-like, hiccuppy vocal delivery. The band doesn't completely abandon their dancey tendencies (see "Someone's Missing,") but more prominent on Congratulations are the oddballs, like the thousand-faced lead single "Flash Delirium" and the preposterous twelve-minute, Simon and Garfunklish opus "Siberian Breaks." "Brian Eno" anchors the sense of humor that pervades the album as lead vocalist Andrew VanWyngarden self-depricates, drowning himself in the colossal shadow of the influential musician/producer, "We're always one step behind him, he's Brian Eno". The album rounds itself out with the refreshingly but peculiarly simple title track. As VanWyngarden's sings "Damn my luck and damn these friends / That keep combing back their smiles / I save my grace with half-assed guilt / And lay down the quilt upon the lawn / Spread my arms and soak up congratulations," it's clear that all the joking and dancing around old fans' expectations served a more important, much darker purpose: to shed light on the destructive nature of the lightning-fast celebrity lifestyle.

Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic

With Antifogmatic, the second album under the Punch Brothers moniker, Chris Thile and his band of grown-up bluegrass prodigies bring the seemingly polar principles of progressive technical skill and pop sensibility to traditional blueg
rass. At times, the quintet's incalculable musical talent slumps into the background to make way for Thile's melodious croon ("You Are"). At other times, the vocals drop out and Thile turns his keen attention to his mandolin as he weaves through and around the exceptional violin, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, and banjo virtuosos that make up his band. The central riff in "Don't Need No" is knee-buckling as the banjo, mandolin, and guitar parrot each other on top of a deeply rooted bass/violin foundation. Similarly, the fleet-fingered players dart their collective way around "The Woman and the Bell" in such a way that it seems to be sonic illusion. But for the Punch Brothers, songwriting values do not, by any means, take a back seat to astonishing execution and complex, staunchly academic arrangement. Songs like "Next to the Trash" and "Rye Whiskey" cake a thick layer of traditional country flavor on top of modern (yet timeless) subject matter and tops it all off with the aforementioned freakish natural playing ability. The album closes with the pensive "This Is the Song (Good Luck)," a profoundly down-paced ballad that melts Thile's yearning voice so perfectly with uncharacteristically simple full-band instrumentation that the grave atmosphere of the song becomes entirely separate from its physical origin. I saw these guys live at the Newport Folk Festival last month, and it truly made me want to quit music altogether. They somehow manage to sound even tighter live than on the record, the elusive mark of a legendary band in the making.

The Tallest Man on Earth - Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird (EP)

Kristian Matsson has played all the right cards throughout his young career. His debut full-length, Shallow Graves, was awesome. Its follow-up, The Wild Hunt, was very similar...and absolutely awesome. So it's only natural that The Tallest Man on Earth's between-albums EP, Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird, would be both similar to its two predecessors and, subsequently, awesome. Well, kind of, but not quite. But it is definitely awesome. The 5-song EP starts with "Little River," a Wild Huntish number that shows off the grainy yelp and on-point guitar-plucking style that has made The Tallest Man a household name (in houses full of modern indie/folk fans, anyway). The EP takes a turn, though, with the second track, "The Dreamer"; for the second time in his discography, Matsson appears with an instrument other than acoustic guitar or banjo. Instead of plucking feverishly at his woody strings, Matsson strums on an electric guitar set to a mushy, watery tone. At first, the track offends much in the same way the rare misstep "Kids on the Run," Matsson's lone pinao ballad, offends at the end of The Wild Hunt. But the melody is much more compelling, the lyrics are adequately attention-grabbing, and the muddy guitar tone grew on me just enough to allow the track to play through when I spin the EP. He steps a little further out of his box with the uncharacteristically slow "Like the Wheel," the first song to appear in the Tallest Man's discography in which Matsson adds a background of (presumably) keyboard-generated ambience. The application is very light and subtle, but it is just peculiar enough that any Tallest Man fan can pick up on it pretty quickly. Another Wild Hunt-sounding track, "Tangle In This Trampled Wheat" follows, setting up "Thrown Right At Me" to close the short EP. On the closer, Matsson employs yet another uncharacteristic playing style: a waltzlike strumming rhythm that emphasizes the vocals as he sings "You grew up playin' the valley so wild / That's why you're so beautiful now" to some entity you can almost see in the subtle high-end guitar lines and restrained melody. Sometimes The Blues is Just a Passing Bird is a worthy release to keep our tongues wet while we wait for another LP. But more importantly, it's a medium through which Matsson stretched his repertoire just enough to make another--venture a guess?--awesome record. 

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